Critical Event Management, Severe Weather

5 Extreme Winter Storms of the Decade (And What We’ve Learned)

By Sarah Perry

Extreme winter weather events typically harm fewer people and damage less property than disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. But this doesn’t mean winter weather is low risk. Here, we’ll take a look at five critical winter weather events from the 2010s through today and what they have taught us about preparing for the unpredictable.

The Groundhog Day Blizzard

In 2011, a mega-snowstorm emerged on January 31 and raged through Groundhog Day. Unusually lethal for a winter weather event, the storm killed 36, mostly caused by snow-shoveling and car accidents, and totaled property damages of $1.8 billion. Across the continent, airlines canceled 13,000 flights, 11,000 alone at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

Chicago was buried under 21.2 inches of snow, and the blizzard set a record: 20 inches in 24 hours. On Lake Shore Drive, drivers abandoned 900 cars. First responders struggled to rescue people, and off-ramps were blocked by vehicles. One Chicagoan died when he left his car and was blown into Lake Michigan.

Takeaways

Encourage employees to stay off the roads: Meteorologists predicted this blizzard, and county officials warned drivers to cut travel short. Nevertheless, many ignored these warnings, leading to numerous impassable roadways and off-ramps, hampering recovery efforts.

Keep an emergency kit in the car: Companies and government agencies should remind employees and residents to keep a stash of warm clothing, a flashlight, jumper cables, a battery-powered radio and snacks inside their vehicles. These supplies will enable them to ride out a storm until help arrives.

Snowpocalypse

On January 29, 2014, this blizzard slammed the Southeast. Sleet sliced through normally balmy New Orleans, Houston and Mobile, but the biggest story was Atlanta. Days in advance, the National Weather Service (NWS) had predicted this storm would be monstrous. Nevertheless, Fulton County, home to Atlanta and eight other counties, failed to cancel school, leaving some students stuck in school buildings overnight.

Area highways and city streets were gridlocked. Tractor trailers clogged Interstate 285, the commuter roadway that rings the city. The National Guard spent the day rescuing people from cars on I-285, where three babies were born, one delivered by the mother.

Takeaways

Encourage employees to heed weather alerts: For residents of Atlanta and surrounding counties, it’s tempting to scoff at blizzard predictions because they’re rare. Mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal were attending an event when the storm unfolded. Reed no doubt regretted his tweet: “Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.”

Make a better plan: A couple weeks later, when another snowstorm hit, Reed closed schools ahead of time and arranged to salt the streets. Additionally, he hired Atlanta’s first emergency manager, and Deal formed a Weather Warning Task Force comprising meteorologists and local and state officials.

Pineapple Express

Beginning on November 30, 2014, this West-Coast winter storm finally diminished on December 28, making it a storm complex that lasted a month. It was fueled by an “atmospheric river” called a Pineapple Express, so nicknamed because it originates in Hawaii.

Much of the storm’s ferocity centered on California. On December 10, lashing rains cut power to 150,000 homes in San Francisco and officials shut down the city’s cable cars. Along with Berkeley and Oakland, San Francisco shuttered public schools, and the airport cancelled 236 flights. Over the next few weeks, the storm caused mudslides, severe flooding and cut power to tens of thousands.

Takeaways

Winter happens on the West Coast, too: Snow and ice aren’t the only damaging types of winter weather. Rainstorms in balmier regions often cause dangerous, cascading events that officials, residents and businesses must prepare for, such as floods and mudslides.

Storms are getting more intense: Climate Nexus, a company that communicates environmental information, says climate change may be behind atmosphere-river storms. Computer models predict that excess moisture in the atmosphere due to increased carbon will cause more frequent and powerful events—and greater damage—to the West Coast. Businesses and local government agencies must be ready to respond in kind.

Great Plains Bomb Cyclone

“U.S. News and World Report” named this storm, which started on March 8, 2019, one of the top 10 natural disasters of the 2010s. In Colorado, the blizzard buried Nederland in 20 inches of snow and left 1,000 drivers trapped on highways, requiring rescues by the National Guard.

In Iowa, floods killed three, and 30 levees failed, submerging communities and closing most of Interstate 29. In Nebraska, floods damaged the Spencer Dam, leading to the annihilation of three bridges downstream. The devastation in Nebraska included two deaths, damages of $449 million to infrastructure, $440 million in crops and $400 million in cattle.

Takeaways

Winter isn’t over until it’s over: Much of the country is prepared for bitter cold from December through February, but winter can run into March or April in some regions. Businesses should remind employees, and local governments should keep emergency equipment on standby, even as winter wanes.

The effects of storms can be far-reaching: In addition to Iowa and Nebraska, at least six other states were severely impacted. Winter storms aren’t isolated events. For both emergency managers and companies, keeping an eye on destructive storms thousands of miles away gives everyone time to prepare.

Record October snowfall and cold

In New England, snow blanketed Halloween dioramas and decorations on October 30, 2020. A Boston meteorologist noted that snowfall of more than 3.5 inches shattered the record of 1.1 inches, a total higher than any previous accumulation for the entire month of October.

New England’s trees had yet to shed their foliage, causing the heavy, wet snow to break branches that downed power lines and smashed cars and houses. In Western Massachusetts, more than 700,000 households lost power, and one man who left his car died after touching an electrified guardrail.

Takeaways

Better prepare for power outages: Pre-season winter weather brings wet, heavy snow that downs power lines. The aging population means more people rely on medical equipment requiring electricity, and hospitals need power for life-saving procedures.

Weather is getting weirder: And by weirder, we mean less predictable and more unseasonable. Local governments can prepare by reviewing the amount of emergency funds available in the case of an unpredictable event. And both government agencies and companies can develop adaptable plans that account for the rising likelihood of unseasonable weather events.

Give winter its due

It’s clear that winter weather is more diverse than blizzards, ice storms and sleet. And it’s becoming more unpredictable, frequent and severe.

How can your agency or company not only prepare for critical events caused by winter weather, but react quickly and confidently when threats to people, infrastructure and assets arise? The OnSolve Platform for Critical Event Management™ combines AI-powered risk intelligence, critical communications and mobile incident management to help you protect what matters most.

Learn more by downloading our Guide to Best Practices for Managing Winter Weather Critical Events.